Jeff Hollenbach, a math teacher at Pennridge High School, sat at his classroom desk in March 2001 when he heard a knock — and in walked an unfamiliar face.
“Hi, I’m James Franklin with the University of Maryland, and I’m here to recruit your son.”
It was the first time Hollenbach — Pennridge’s football coach — met Franklin, then a Terrapins assistant. Little did he know, at the time, it was a relationship that would develop into a fruitful one over the years.
Hollenbach’s son, Sam, was recruited by and signed with Maryland 15 years ago. On Thursday another player of his, inside linebacker Nick Tarburton, committed to Franklin.
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Tarburton, a four-star prospect according to Rivals.com, is the 12th-best player from Pennsylvania. His verbal pledge further bolstered Penn State’s No. 1 class of 2018, bringing it to 11 members. Six are from the Keystone State.
Tarburton’s commitment was exciting not only for Nittany Lion fans, but for Hollenbach, too.
The junior linebacker, who announced his decision a little past 6 p.m. Thursday, wasn’t the one who actually told his coach. Hollenbach found out from an unlikely source.
“I was in a meeting (Thursday night), and I came out into the hallway,” said Hollenbach, who ’s actually staying at the Penn State Hotel and Conference Center for a high school coaches clinic.“And (Franklin’s) just standing there looking at me smiling, with a big smile. He gave me a big hug, said Nick was in, and I was thrilled.”
Pennridge’s coach had a feeling his “rugged, downhill” tackler would pick the Nittany Lions.
Hollenbach met with Tarburton and his parents Monday night to review the situation and discuss options. The No. 12 inside linebacker nationally, according to 247 Sports, also had offers from Pittsburgh, Maryland, Louisville, Michigan State, Rutgers and Syracuse.
“We had a whiteboard in front of us,” Tarburton said, “and they told me to write down a school that I could put in front of Penn State, and I couldn’t. Right then and there, I knew.”
Hollenbach followed up immediately.
“I said to Nick, ‘Suppose Clemson offers tomorrow or Alabama gets involved or Ohio State or whoever,’ and he kept looking at me saying, ‘Coach, that’s not going to turn my head. I’m totally committed to Penn State. That’s where I want to play,’” the coach recalled. “So Monday night, I had a pretty good idea where he was going to go.”
Penn State’s linebacker tradition and 2016 re-emergence played a role in Tarburton’s commitment. Hollenbach’s history with Franklin also helped.
I remember saying to my wife a number of times, ‘This coach is going to be a head coach someday at a major level — and he’s going to be good.’ I had that feeling way back in the early 2000s.
Jeff Hollenbach, Nick Tarburton’s coach on James Franklin
The linebacker met with countless coaches throughout the recruiting process, trying to figure out where he wanted to play. But Hollenbach told Tarburton what to expect out of Franklin, and the linebacker liked what he heard.
“He sounded super nice, real down-to-earth, and he turned out to be an awesome guy,” Tarburton said. “There’s a lot about Coach Hollenbach that reminds me of (Franklin).”
Throughout the years, Hollenbach has always been a Franklin advocate.
In the summer of 2001, the Pennridge headman got a better glimpse of the then-up-and-coming coach.
After a junior camp at Maryland was canceled due to inclement weather, Hollenbach, his son, Franklin and offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe walked across campus to the intramural building.
Franklin then walked on the basketball courts, Hollenbach remembered, and said he’d buy pizza for anyone who’d stop playing pick-up and leave.
He had a recruit he needed to see in action.
When everyone cleared out, Hollenbach’s son fielded plays from Taaffe and threw to Franklin running the routes.
The next day, Franklin called and offered the younger Hollenbach, who accepted and went on to throw for 5,139 yards and 28 touchdowns in his Maryland career.
The elder Hollenbach was a fan from the get-go.
“When I got to know coach Franklin,” he said, “I remember saying to my wife a number of times, ‘This coach is going to be a head coach someday at a major level — and he’s going to be good.’ I had that feeling way back in the early 2000s.”
Of course, Penn State’s success this past season was no surprise to Hollenbach — and it didn’t shock him that Tarburton wanted to play for the 2016 Big Ten champion.
There’s discussion over whether or not Tarburton will play inside linebacker when he arrives at Penn State. The 6-foot-3, 242-pounder could end up at outside linebacker or defensive end.
But regardless of position, given his long relationship with Franklin, Hollenbach is pleased to know Tarburton’s standing at Penn State.
“I know he’s going to be treated fairly,” the coach said. “It’s going to be about family and be about team. It’s not about individualism here, and Nick is the kind of guy that works really well for him.”